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Many butterflies in Florida are found nowhere else in North America. Over 160 butterfly species breed here and about 200 species migrate through the state. Some are rare such as the large, colorful Schaus swallowtail that is making a comeback from near extinction. The well-known monarch butterfly commutes through Florida’s Gulf Coast on its way to wintering in Mexico. The bright yellow cloudless sulfur and the Gulf fritillary are commonly sighted. Where you are in Florida may determine what butterflies you see.
- In sandhill habitat around Tampa Bay and along the Atlantic Coast beaches south of Jacksonville, look for the yucca or cofaqui giant-skippers. They fly as fast as 40 mph, dart through dunes in search of mates and plants and are on the wing for only a few days in spring or fall.
- Throughout Florida, small, brightly colored butterflies like the ceraunus blue and gray hairstreak may be spotted around flowers and near the ground.
- In the Florida Keys, if one finds a long twining balloon vine at the edge of a tropical hardwood hammock, you may catch sight of a silver-banded hairstreak. Also known as the St. Christopher's hairstreak, this small butterfly has a brilliant iridescent violet upper side in males and black and grayish blue upper side in female. Their underside is a beautifully yellowish-green with a conspicuous silvery white line on all four wings, with only one tail on each hindwing and a reddish patch at its base.
- Widely distributed across the state are 10 swallowtail species, among the largest butterflies in Florida. One of the most familiar is the yellow and black striped eastern tiger swallowtail, which flies from the Georgia border south to the Big Cypress Swamp, and includes some females that are melanic (dark colored). Others include the eastern black swallowtail, white and black striped zebra swallowtail, black and yellow spotted polydamas swallowtail, the pipevine swallowtail - whose wings shimmer in a bright iridescent bluish-purple, the black and yellow palamedes swallowtail, bluish-black spicebush swallowtail, and boldly patterned giant swallowtail. Rarer is the Bahamian swallowtail found primarily in Biscayne National Park.
- Look also for the gorgeous atala butterfly, a resident of south Florida with males that are black with brilliant metallic green on the forewing and a narrow greenish line along the outer border of the hindwing. Females are also black but have a streak of blue along the rear margin of the forewing. Both sexes have a bright red abdomen, and the underside of the hindwing is black with bright blue spots and a red patch.
While a wide variety of Florida habitats supports butterflies, the loss or degradation of some habitats has contributed to major declines of some butterfly species. Threats to butterfly habitats also include use of pesticides, hurricanes, and introduction of invasive species. The Miami blue, for example, once fluttered up the west coast as far as Tampa and the east coast to Daytona Beach, but now is detected only on small islands in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. People can help by creating butterfly gardens in their backyards or community common areas and using native plants that feed the caterpillars and provide nectar for adults.
Behaviors are as individual as the butterflies. One example: Bartram's scrub-hairstreak has bold markings on the underside that include a red patch near the base of the tails and a white line and spots. As the butterfly perches on a branch or flower, it twitches its hindwings back and forth, waving the two long tails in the breeze like tiny antennae in front of giant red eyes with covering white lines. This false eyespot, known as a deflection pattern, is effective with insect-eating birds and lizards that apparently are responsible for hairstreaks with missing tails or parts of the hindwing. These are parts the butterflies can lose without injuring their flight or shortening their lifespan, compared to losing their real head at the other end of their body!